SANTA CRUZ, BOLIVIA – Bolivia's maverick former president, Evo Morales, made a triumphant return to his homeland Monday, a year after his failed attempt to keep power tore the nation apart and sent him into exile.
Morales, the country's longest-serving leader, was greeted by brass bands and hundreds of cheering supporters as he walked across the border from Argentina on the dusty and frigid Andean plateau, accompanied by the neighboring country's president, Alberto Fernández, and a retinue of close allies.
But beyond the jubilant reception, Morales finds a nation eager to move beyond the political turmoil unleashed by his divisive bid for a fourth presidential term and focused on overcoming a crippling pandemic and economic crisis.
None of the national leaders of Morales' socialist political party, which returned to power this month following a calm presidential election, came to greet their mentor at the border. Neither Bolivia's new president, Luis Arce, nor the vice president, David Choquehuanca, both former ministers in Morales' governments, mentioned him in their acceptance speeches Sunday.
Arce had made it clear during the campaign that Morales would play no part in his government, if he won — and he went on to handily beat a field of right-leaning candidates who had historically opposed Morales.
On his return to Bolivia, Morales echoed the promise, telling supporters that he would dedicate himself to labor activism. "I will share my experience in the union struggles, because the fight continues," he said at the border crossing Monday. "As long as capitalism exists, the people's fight will continue, I'm convinced of this."
But the return of a controversial leader who had tried to remain in power by including changing the constitution and stacking the electoral board with supporters, provoked alarm among government opponents in a nation that remains deeply divided after last year's political unrest.
In the prosperous eastern region of Santa Cruz, protesters went on strike last week and pledged not to recognize the new pro-Morales government, saying there had been fraud, but without providing evidence. "We are worried about his arrival and we reject it," said Marcelo Pedrazas, an opposition lawmaker, referring to Morales.
Notably, Morales remains the head of the country's largest and most organized political party, Movement to Socialism, or MAS, giving him an important platform to potentially pressure Arce's government, said Marcelo Silva, a political scientist at the San Andres Main University in La Paz.
"Luis Arce is trying to mark a sharp separation between his administration and his political party," he added. "But it's impossible to separate the actions of the leader of the ruling party from the actions of the head of government."
Morales also remains the leader of Bolivia's powerful coca-growing labor unions, an intensely loyal and well-organized social movement.
Few in Bolivia believe that Morales, one of the most successful Latin American politicians of his generation, will stick to his stated plans of cultivating grassroots union leaders and farming trout.
When his legal time in office drew to a close, he argued that people had demanded that he continue to lead Bolivia, and he got allied judges to rule that constitutional term limits violated his human rights.
But his decision to run for a fourth term in office in October 2019 backfired. After the vote's validity was called into question, Bolivians poured into the streets in protest, and security forces withdrew their support.